When it comes to the multi-faceted role of filmmaker it seems that rejection is an ever-present bedfellow. Be that rejection of your elevator pitch even before your idea has had the chance to take its first breath or the rejection of access to the essential funds and resources needed to make a great idea into a cinematic reality. Even when you’ve managed to traverse those often insurmountable hurdles, you still have to contend with the rejection of the inscrutable gatekeepers who are keeping your masterpiece from the audiences that would clearly love it they only had the opportunity to watch. New York-based filmmaker Ryan Schnackenberg’s latest short The Screener takes these all too familiar experiences of rejection and imagines what would occur if they could be questioned, not from behind the safe remove of a screen, but in the harsh light of a face to face confrontation. It’s a film that will clearly resonate with filmmakers everywhere and one that Schnackenberg drew on his personal experience of the tetchy subject for, writing the script with comedian and actress Marissa Goldman in mind to play the rebuffed filmmaker. Goldman brings a unique energy to the role, embodying the dejected, desperate and ultimately slightly unhinged protagonist with a finesse that teeters right on the edge. Watch it below after which we speak to writer/director Schnackenberg about shooting The Screener in one day, his first time working with an editor on a narrative project and designing the perfect look for his fake but entirely believable film streaming platform.
What inspired you to explore this disheartening aspect of the filmmaking process?
The initial concept for The Screener came from my own experience. There’s so much rejection in the submission process for films. I remember thinking it might be funny to confront someone who’s rejected you, but pretty quickly that interaction seemed like it would sour.
Following Miranda on her quest for gatekeeper justification is great, did coming at the script from a position of personal experience make the writing easier?
The script came together pretty quickly from the initial idea. I knew it would only be a few pages. The hardest part was accepting that this was something I wanted to make, being direct about rejection was something that took time to get comfortable with throughout the process.
I think the short runtime actually helps in a way. It would be hard to live in that character’s head for too long.
I’m impressed with how quickly you got the script together, was production an equally rapid affair? What did you shoot this on?
We had to shoot this all in one day because we had the camera package and other equipment from a music video I had been asked to direct. Luckily the script was short and only had two actors so it wasn’t very hard to figure out. The most challenging element of production was the long take of the main character’s monologue. I had written into the script that it would all happen in one shot, but there were a lot of elements we had to leave to chance, a super small crew, shooting on an active street in Brooklyn, lots of light sources and shadows, and on top of all this we had to make sure that the actors were giving the right performance.
We shot on a Sony FX9 with a set of vintage Jena lenses that the DP, Adam Kolodny, had acquired after doing research on their use in The Master and Phantom Thread. They do strange things when you shoot them wide open on a full frame camera and that uneasiness in the image felt right for our movie.
Can you tell us a little more about getting that long take monologue in the can?
I think we knew going in that the long take would be one big hurdle, but that’s also what makes it exciting. It was definitely a process of trial and error. You might make it through 75% of the take and then realize you left a bag in the frame. The actual coverage lasted twice as long because I knew we would want to shift where it started or ended in the edit, so that gave us a little bit of breathing room.
The Screener deftly moves from comedy to extremely uncomfortable toe-curling social horror. To what extent was that tone captured on set versus constructed in the edit?
I wasn’t sure exactly what the tone would be when we were shooting it. I tried not to overthink it. It seems like things that one person might laugh at someone else might reel away from. The horror revealed itself more in the edit, but I knew we were exploring something toxic on multiple levels, so that element seemed to just make sense. I think the short runtime actually helps in a way. It would be hard to live in that character’s head for too long.
We see so many poor examples of phone and computer interfaces on film, what did you find challenging in designing your replica streaming site?
The hardest part for me was realizing that one day this may look dated. Our film was intentionally contemporary, so we had to lean into those design elements. Rob Hendricks, the art director, made everything. We would joke about how painful it was for him to recreate a look he hates. There are so many examples of this new age millennial graphic style. Ironically, I think to express the ways something can be haunting is to try and do it well.
Post production lasted for a few months. It was the first time I had worked with an editor on a narrative project, as in the past I’ve edited myself, but I knew it was something I wanted to explore. I’m so happy I did, and the editor made a lot of decisions that I would have never thought of but fell in love with. A lot of work went into designing the look of our fake streaming website with the art director. We focused on Vimeo Staff Picks, Short of the Week and NoBudge to define the new age millennial graphic style that I thought was really important to get right. We did a lot of this work before we filmed, and I found that sharing the branding elements with the cast and crew gave them a much clearer idea of what we were going for.
Working with a comedian in this context felt like it added a layer of confusion to what you’re supposed to be feeling that I liked.
How did you decide on the flashing montage of vintage films that appear when Miranda’s stewing in the dark?
The older films were editor Victor Artesona’s, idea. We talked about that scene as a dream sequence. The character obsesses over her perceived failures and feels the weight of film history on her shoulders. There’s something about the sense of permanence and impermanence at the same time these days…
These characters feel spot on, from Miranda’s obsessive spiralling into ill-advised action to Caleb’s cornered attempts to brush her off. How did you cast the roles?
I wrote the film with Marissa Goldman in mind. The role of Miranda required someone who could move between highs and lows pretty quickly, and Marissa is a comedian as well as a filmmaker. Working with a comedian in this context felt like it added a layer of confusion to what you’re supposed to be feeling that I liked. Tymon Brown, who plays Caleb, is a filmmaker, but he also runs a screening series in NYC called New Cinema Club. I had screened shorts with him in the past and was sure he would understand the role. I hope there can be something emancipatory about inhabiting these parts of ourselves. Both Marissa and Tymon brought a gentleness to the characters that I hadn’t expected.
What are you looking to explore in your next project?
I’m finishing up post production on a short film called Scene. I think it’s a good spiritual successor to The Screener, it’s also a film about people trying to see themselves through another.